The Objective

Killian Hayes
·11 min read

At the Universal CityWalk in Orlando, there used to be an NBA store. It might as well have been heaven when I was six years old. There was a LeBron statue out front. It was huge. On the inside there were rows and rows of NBA jerseys, and balls stacked from the floor to the ceiling — and I wanted to touch them all. I remember just going from aisle to aisle, grabbing each jersey and turning it around to see the name on the back.

JAMES

BRYANT

NOWITZKI

I’d call my dad over to show him my favorite ones. I could have spent all day there. That place was special because we didn’t have anything like it back home in France. My parents and I came to America every summer during my dad’s off-season. He played pro basketball for Cholet, just outside of Nantes. When his season would end we’d head back to where Dad grew up, in the Central Florida area, and I’d get to live for a few months as an American kid.

I was born in Florida, yes, but I was raised in France.

In Cholet, the NBA felt like it was a million miles away.

Every day, when I got out of elementary school, Mum would come pick me up at four o’clock and take me home. I’d rush through my homework and then wait until nobody was using our family computer, and then I’d get on the Internet. That’s how I used to learn about the NBA. On YouTube, I’d watch hours and hours of And1 mixtapes and highlight videos of my guys, like Dwyane Wade and Bron. If I could go back and check my Internet history from back then, I’m sure it would be just pages and pages of links like, “BEST CROSSOVERS 2008/09” and “JUMPER COMPILATION NBA.”

I rarely, if ever, saw a full game. So to me, those players were literal human highlight reels who were capable of doing anything on the court.

That’s why, when we walked into the NBA store in Orlando, seeing their jerseys was like touching Superman’s cape, or something like that.

My favorite part, though, was the hand imprints they had on the wall. They had Kobe and Bron on there, but the wildest one was Shaq — no doubt. I think I could have fit five of my hands inside his palm. He was a big deal in Orlando, too, of course. There were pictures of him all over the store, and his jersey was everywhere.

NBA basketball made me proud to have been born there.

Courtesy of Killian Hayes
Courtesy of Killian Hayes

Because I had been born in the States, and my dad was from there, I felt like I was a part of American basketball. Like I was closer to it than all the kids I played with back in France. Even as a seven- or eight-year-old boy, I was always proud to introduce myself in class as Killian Hayes, from Lakeland, Florida.

Cholet isn’t that big of a place. My elementary school was near our house, and most of the kids lived in the same neighborhood. When I wasn’t watching NBA highlights after school, I’d be out at the field playing soccer with my friends. I never played on any organized teams — because once I put my hand inside Shaq’s, I knew I wanted to play basketball forever — but everyone in town played soccer, so that’s what I did. And in class, all the kids would talk about Ronaldo and Messi, not Bron and Kobe.

But one thing I want to make clear is this: France is absolutely a basketball country, too.

We might not have the international pedigree of other European countries, and certainly not the U.S., but there is a great basketball culture in France.

I learned that from going to my dad’s games in Cholet.

The atmosphere at those games was more like a Champions League soccer match than it was an NBA game. The crowds were loud, and they were smart. They respected the crisp, dagger bounce pass just as much as they loved the dunk.

The atmosphere at those games was more like a Champions League soccer match than it was an NBA game.

When Mum was busy, I’d go to my dad’s practices from time to time after school, and I learned a lot there. Dad would lower the hoop for me and pick me up and let me dunk. As I got a bit older, he’d run me through drills. He’s a big guy, 6 '6" and 230 pounds. So for a long time he was pretty stiff competition. I couldn’t post him up until a few years ago.

He pushed me hard, but he never forced me to play basketball.

Dad had played college ball in the States, and I knew his journey hadn’t been straightforward. He never made it to the league and he had to grind really hard in Europe to make a name for himself. He knows the game of basketball — and the world of basketball — more than most people.

I think he knew that if I wanted to do this, like if I really wanted to try to be a basketball player, then I had to love it. I had to love coming to the gym each day. I had to love the process. And when I got to be 11 or 12 years old, he saw that in me. I was a determined boy. When I’d come back to America in the summers, and we’d go down to the rec center and I’d play against some really good players who were older than me, that’s when I knew I could play this game.

My dream wasn’t just to play basketball forever.

All those YouTube videos and trips to the CityWalk had left a mark on me.

My dream was to play in the NBA.

But the road from Cholet to the NBA draft was hard to navigate.

Courtesy of Killian Hayes
Courtesy of Killian Hayes

When I was 14, my dad was considering coming back to Florida to try to play professionally. So we also talked about me going to one of the big high schools in the States to get myself ready for college ball.

And I wanted that, real bad. I had seen so many videos online of the McDonald’s All American games and the big AAU tournaments and all those different youth basketball events. There was so much hype, and all those guys were choosing between different colleges to go to — it just seemed like the dream. But my parents and I did a lot of talking about the best route to take going forward, and it didn’t include going to America.

A part of me was a bit disappointed when we came to the decision, but I understood. I trusted my dad and his experience with the high school and college system in America. It’s not that it’s bad or can’t produce great players — lots of superstar players go through it — but he just felt that for me, the most important thing was to learn how to be a great pro.

He’d say, “All the five-star ratings, all the hype videos — they don’t mean anything if you get to the NBA and can’t make it work as a professional basketball player.”

But at the end of the day, the decision was still mine. And with all of the options laid out in front of me, I decided to stay in France and become a professional player at Cholet.

I played my first game as a pro at 16 years old. Most kids that age are juniors in high school, but there I was going up against grown men — playing for their livelihoods, in games that truly mattered to the clubs. The teams in France rely on the prize money for making the playoffs and the gate proceeds to stick around, so each game really matters. It made me see the game a bit differently.

There wasn’t time to make mistakes, there wasn’t time to play like a rookie.

There wasn’t time to make mistakes, there wasn’t time to play like a rookie.

When I’d hold on to the ball for too long, or try to make a play on my own, the coach would always yell at me. I had grown up being one of the better players on my junior teams, and I’d gotten used to forcing plays from time to time because I knew I had the ability to do it. But at the pro level, I couldn’t do that.

Being on edge like that ... it made me uncomfortable. But I learned quickly that the best way to grow was to be uncomfortable. I got better as a player because I had to, because there was no other choice. I knew I wouldn’t play much if I couldn’t get into the lineup. My dad knew that, and I also think he knew that I would rise to the challenge.

I had to mature quickly. No time to complain about playing time, or who gets the ball when. We were in the business of winning games. That was what mattered.

My older teammates helped me out, on and off the court. I couldn’t get my drivers license in France until I was 18, so my first few years with Cholet my parents and teammates used to have to drive me to and from practices and games. People always offered to help because they knew I cared so much about Cholet. I had been going to the arena since before I can remember. I knew the club really well. It’s one big family.

When I think of Cholet, I think of guys like Abdoulaye Ndoye and Warren Woghiren — who started their pro careers around the same time I did. They helped me so much in the weight room and on the court, and also helped me grow as a player and a professional. They showed me that I could do this, that I could be a pro. That was when the NBA changed for me from a dream to an objective.

That might sound the same to you, but it’s not. A dream is something that you imagine, something you don’t expect to happen. An objective is something you cross off a list — something you know you can do.

You just gotta go do it.

TF-Images/Getty Images
TF-Images/Getty Images

So in 2019, I took the next step in my career and decided to move away from home. I went to Germany to play for ratiopharm Ulm in the Basketball Bundesliga. It was a chance to test my game even more, to make myself more uncomfortable. We played in the EuroCup against some of the best teams from all over the continent. It was an incredible experience, a chance to see the game in different parts of the world — it was just really rewarding.

I used to watch March Madness highlights as a boy. The sold-out football stadiums going crazy for Duke and North Carolina … I thought it was just the coolest thing ever. That’s why the decision to stay in Europe was tough. I wanted that college experience. But if I could go back in time and tell myself to have confidence in the choice, to keep the faith, I would talk about the places the game can take you.

I was 18 years old and playing pro basketball in Germany. I was travelling to Italy, Spain and all these other places to play a game. I learned more than I ever could have imagined and I have zero regrets about the path I was fortunate enough to take.

All of those experiences have prepared me for what’s next.

I’m ready to cross an objective off my list.

I’m ready to be a professional basketball player in the NBA.

Everything I’ve done in my life has been leading to this moment.

Everything I’ve done in my life has been leading to this moment.

It’s funny, I got a DM from Tony Parker the other day on Instagram. He was just saying hello and that he wanted to talk sometime, give me some advice. He’s obviously a legend and I was shocked to see it. But it made me realize something — or at least it made me think about something I used to dream about.

During all the interviews with the NBA teams before the draft, they would ask me about what type of player I wanted to be. I told them the truth — about the dream that had been with me since I was a little kid: I want to be a great pro, just like my dad taught me to be. I want to be a teammate who guys in the room can rely on. And I want to be a leader on the court.

But I also told them that I am incredibly proud of where I was raised.

I want to be one of the best players to come out of France, just like Tony.

Right now, it’s a dream, too. But I know I can turn it into an objective.